Home >> Volume 1, Issue 02

Seeking Truth: Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Intellectual Pilgrimage

Douglas Ambrose

In the spring of 1983 I received a letter from Eugene Genovese. I was soon to begin my graduate education with him at the University of Rochester, and he wrote to invite me to visit him at his home in Ithaca, New York before the beginning of the fall semester. Graciously offering to let me stay the weekend, he wrote that his wife, “in addition to being first-class historian . . . is a first-class cook.” I had recently read the volume of essays he and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese had written, Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism,[1] so I already knew that Betsey was a “first-class historian.” But Gene’s letter was the first hint I had that Betsey was far more than a scholar. That weekend changed my life, largely because of Betsey. Yes, she was a “first-class cook,” and countless students, colleagues, and friends can recall the sumptuous gourmet meals she prepared while remaining fully engaged in conversations over everything from baseball to popular music to fashion to global political economy. Her heart and mind captivated and challenged me from the start. That heart and mind reflected a lifelong search for truth, a search that produced an enormous corpus of distinguished scholarship and that ultimately brought her into full communion with the Catholic Church.[2] As Betsey reminded us, her conversion to Catholicism in 1995 must be understood not as a departure from the course of her life but as an integral part of it, as the culmination but not the end of a pilgrimage.[3]

Betsey and Gene lived in Ithaca in the early through mid 1980s, in part because it was more or less equidistant from Rochester, where Gene taught, and Binghamton, where Betsey taught. Ithaca was also as close to a hometown as Betsey had, and her parents had lived there most of their adult lives. Her father, Edward Whiting Fox was a distinguished historian of modern Europe and taught for decades at Cornell University. He imparted much to Betsey beyond a love for and dedication to the craft of history. He taught her that intellectual honesty was the necessary, inviolable basis of meaningful, lasting scholarly work. Although an atheist, he and Betsey’s Jewish agnostic mother instilled in Betsey a strong sense of both the moral truth of the Decalogue and the fallen nature of humanity. Betsey’s mother, Elizabeth Simon Fox, read the Bible to Betsey and her younger brother and sister and encouraged them to read it themselves. Betsey’s mother also sent her to Sunday schools for several years. But notwithstanding this exposure to aspects of faith, the Fox household was unmistakably a secular one.

Betsey received an excellent primary and secondary education, attending, among other schools, Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts and Le College Cevenol in Le Chambon sur Lignon in France. She then went to Bryn Mawr, where she majored in both history and French literature and read widely and deeply in medieval church history and theology. Entering graduate school in European history at Harvard in the mid-1960s, Betsey was already deeply influenced by philosophical materialism and Western Marxist interpretations of history. Yet even as her political and academic views reflected her secular Leftist worldview, she lost neither her scholarly respect for believers nor her appreciation for the intellectual sophistication of Christianity. As a graduate student at Harvard she expanded her already breathtakingly broad interests. Her work on the eighteenth-century French Physiocrats required her to master classical political economy and modern political theory. In the midst of her graduate career, she met Gene Genovese in 1968. Eleven years her senior, Gene was already one of the most widely known and controversial academics in America. A prominent Marxist scholar of the Old South, he had been pressured to leave a position at Rutgers University in 1965 after he publicly proclaimed that he “welcomed a Viet Cong victory.” Gene, the Brooklyn-born, working-class, Sicilian-American, twice-divorced former Communist, and Betsey, the privately-educated, sophisticated daughter of an Ivy League professor, fell madly in love and married in 1969.[4]

Betsey joined Gene on the faculty of the University of Rochester’s history department in 1973, shortly before she finished her Ph.D.[5] She became increasingly fascinated by psychoanalysis and devoted several years of intense professional study to it. Her dissertation on the Physiocrats soon became her first book, The Origins of Physiocracy: Economic Revolution and Social Order in Eighteenth-Century France.[6] Betsey’s book revealed her debt to Marxism, but it also demonstrated that her Marxism, like Gene’s, was neither dogmatic nor reductionist. Marxism for Betsey was never a rigid ideology but rather a method, a way of uncovering the truth of the past, of explaining why people, both individually and in the aggregate, did what they did. Convinced that the social relations of production—the ways in which people related to others in the process of producing their material reality—influenced the way people viewed their world and their place in it, she sought to explain some of history’s great conflicts, whether in ancien regime France or the antebellum United States, in terms of conflicts between not simply classes, but between the social systems in which those classes were embedded. She soon broadened herself further, sharing Gene’s interest in the history of comparative slavery and the Old South. The convergence of their scholarly interests produced Fruits of Merchant Capital in 1983 and numerous co-authored articles in the 1980s.[7] By the late 1970s Betsey was also beginning her work on women—as historical subjects, as writers, and as members of contemporary society. By the time I met her in 1983 she had moved from the University of Rochester to the State University of New York at Binghamton and was well into the research that would culminate in her prize-winning book, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South.[8] This groundbreaking work combined extensive research into the writings of antebellum Southern women, sophisticated analysis informed by Marxism, psychoanalysis, and literary theory, and, most notably, a remarkable ability to sympathize with her subjects, both mistresses and slaves. Within the Plantation Household changed the way historians thought about women in the Old South, but it also changed the way people thought about American women’s history. Betsey demonstrated that women’s identity was multifaceted, shaped by class and race as well as sex. It received accolades throughout the academy and won the C. Hugh Holman Prize of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize of the Southern Association of Women Historians, and the outstanding book of the year award from the Augustus Meyer Foundation for the Study of Human Rights.

The publication of Within the Plantation Household marked the high water mark of Betsey’s academic reputation. Although she had always faced opposition and hostility from other scholars—part of it simply jealously, part of it motivated by her criticism of the self-indulgence and libertinism of so many on the Left--her achievements permitted her to exercise considerable professional influence. Her hiring by Emory University in 1986 testified to that influence. Emory wanted Betsey not only to teach history but also to design and supervise the country’s first Ph.D. program in Women’s Studies. Betsey built an innovative, intellectually diverse, and academically serious program that she hoped would demonstrate that Women’s Studies could avoid narrow politicization and be a field that valued intellectual integrity and the range of perspectives that accompanied honest rational inquiry. Her position as the Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History meant that Betsey worked with students from a variety of fields, including history, English, and comparative literature, while her work as Director of the Women’s Studies Program led her increasingly to engage questions of contemporary women’s issues, which she had done since the 1970s. Always a polymath of sorts, Betsey by the late 1980s and early 1990s now moved seamlessly across disciplinary boundaries and across the lines of academia and public policy.

Although feminism had little to do with Betsey’s life prior to the completion of her Ph.D., she recognized its importance to her professional and personal development in the 1970s and 1980s. Her movement into Women’s History reflected not only her desire to expand the scope of historical inquiry to include women, but also her conviction that such an expansion could contribute to our understanding of the entire past. Regarding feminism more broadly, Betsey recalled late in her life that, “like countless other women who cherish improvement in the situation of women in the United States and throughout the world, I was initially quick to embrace feminism as the best way to secure our ‘rights’ and our dignity of persons.”[9] But however quick her embrace, Betsey always had reservations about both the leadership and the underlying logic and consequences of the feminist movement. These reservations did not flow from religious conviction but from her discomfort with feminism’s individualistic and sexual liberationist emphases. In a series of articles and, most notably, in Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (1991), Betsey sought to redirect feminism away from its tendency to promote the solitary, rights-bearing, autonomous individual as the summun bonum and toward a vision of society that promoted equity and justice but nonetheless recognized both the physical and social reality of sexual differences and the claims of others and society upon persons.[10] Although she had since 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision supported abortion during the first trimester, she did so with deep reservations. “It is difficult to shake the impression,” she wrote in Feminism Without Illusions, “that the right to choice is increasingly being presented as identical not merely to freedom from all forms of sexual oppression, including incest and rape, but to women’s right to liberation from the reproductive consequences of their own sexuality—their right to the male model of individualism.” That “male model of individualism,” Betsey recognized, not only ignored the physical differences between men and women, but it also rejected the notion that society may legitimately “reach some determination about [a] collective definition of life.” “Without some such agreement on the definition of life,” she presciently warned, “the right to abortion opens the specter of any individual’s right to kill those who depend upon her and drain her resources—elderly parents, terminally ill or handicapped children. Without some such agreement, the right to abortion—the woman’s right to sexual self-determination—can logically lead to the right to murder with impunity.”[11]

Betsey’s efforts, both in directing Emory’s Women’s Studies program and in Feminism Without Illusions, garnered some praise but much fierce and often vituperative resistance. Her courageous attempt, from what she still viewed as a “pro-choice” position, to warn against the logic of abortion on demand earned her the undying enmity of many prominent feminists and revealed how any deviation from pro-abortion orthodoxy rendered one an apostate from official feminism. Betsey’s actions as Director of Women’s Studies confirmed her apostasy in the eyes of some colleagues and in the feminist movement more generally. Although she herself was still a secular agnostic, she admitted a devout pro-life Catholic to the Women’s Studies program. She traveled to Rochester to speak to the local chapter of Feminists for Life. In both cases, Betsey acted upon her conviction that being pro-life posed no obstacle either to serious scholarship in Women’s Studies or to feminism as she understood it. But Betsey’s ideas of “genuine diversity” within the academy and society in general and Women Studies in particular proved unpopular. Campus political pressures forced her to resign as Director of Women’s Studies, although she continued to be part of the program and worked with numerous students—of all political persuasions. At one time, Betsey simultaneously mentored both the head of Emory Students for Life and one of the leaders of Georgians for Choice. By the early 1990s, however, Betsey found herself marginalized within the academy. More important, she increasingly recognized that the pro-abortion logic, the “specter of any individual’s right to kill those who depend upon her and drain her resources,” was gaining widespread traction in American culture and politics. “The growing attention to euthanasia, assisted suicide, and partial-birth abortion,” she later wrote, “steadily strengthened my conviction that individual human beings could not be entrusted with decisions about life and death and that a willingness to hold any life cheap or expendable corrupts those who claim the right to make those decisions.” Although not yet a Catholic, Betsey saw the “growing struggle in my heart and soul” not as “a matter of left and right, but rather one of right and wrong and our ability to recognize them.” [12] Her moral sense, instilled and cultivated in her as a child, remained clear, and her commitment to intellectual honesty remained firm. But for both she paid an awful price.

Few of us who saw her pay that price in the mid 1990s could have guessed that these “dark nights of her soul” would prove to be full of blessings beyond imagining. Most of us close to her knew that she would, with grace and courage, withstand the scorn of her critics and even the betrayal of some of her friends and colleagues; she had long known that moral and intellectual integrity was rare in academe. But when Betsey converted to Catholicism in December 1995 she astonished both friends and foes alike. Many at the time, including some friends, surmised that Betsey’s conversion was driven by political, cultural, and moral concerns. Her convictions on abortion, euthanasia, and other life issues had led her into alignment with the Church’s teachings, and they had made her politically sympathetic to prolife politicians. Her affinity for the Church’s moral teachings, so the logic went, led her to join the Church. But Betsey, as she points out so elegantly and humbly in her conversion accounts, respected faith too much to simply join a church because she assented to its moral stance. The idea of becoming Catholic because she agreed with its moral teachings would have struck Betsey as blasphemous and intellectually dishonest. No, Betsey did not convert because she wanted to promote a political, or a cultural, or even a moral end. She converted because, in her heart of hearts—in her soul—she was called to the Church. As she stated, hers was no “Road-to-Damascus” conversion; there was no blinding epiphany. Instead, there was a growing, irresistible sense of being led to the Light, a gradual unfolding of the truth. As she put it so beautifully, “there are kinds of knowing that transcend the play of words and ideas. Of such quiet certainty, but more deeply so, is the knowledge of faith, that steals into the soul.”[13] She always knew that God’s grace, not her will, led to her conversion.

I myself was returning to the Church after a twenty-year absence at the same time as Betsey’s conversion. We both benefitted in our journeys from Sheila O’Connor, the devout Catholic Betsey admitted to the Emory Women’s Studies program in 1991. She became Betsey’s friend as well as her student, and Sheila’s “living faith,” as Betsey put it, “contributed to my own sense of faith as the fabric of a life.”[14] She became Betsey’s godmother and my wife. But Betsey and I, although profoundly influenced by Sheila’s prayers and example, knew that although Sheila could model faith, only God could implant it in our souls. Sheila knew on that “day of grace” in December 1995 when Betsey received four sacraments from her beloved friend and confessor Monsignor Richard Lopez and joined the Catholic Church that “living faith” fully animated Betsey’s soul. I will never forget going to Mass with Betsey a few months later and seeing her—sensing her actually—in her quiet and unassuming way, pray in faith. I understood then how profoundly and completely “converted” Betsey was.

In the short years Betsey had after her conversion she lived a lifetime. She wrote and spoke prolifically and brilliantly on countless subjects related to Christian and Catholic belief, especially the inherent dignity of the human person; she served on numerous editorial boards and on the National Endowment for the Humanities; she received the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars’ Cardinal Wright Award for outstanding service to the Church; and she was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2004. She was, in short, one of the most important Catholic public intellectuals of the 1990s and 2000s. Yet, even as she gave so much of herself to the Church, she remained firmly in the world—a scholar who continued to work with Gene on their magnificent multivolume history of southern slaveholders, a mentor who supervised dissertations from a variety of disciplines, a teacher who valued undergraduate students as much as anyone I have ever known, a friend and advisor who answered scores of emails and letters every day.[15] She lived the intellectual vocation, never abandoning the noble quest for knowledge that lies at the heart of the academic enterprise. And although she was a “public” Catholic on the national stage, she valued equally the fellowship of being part of a local parish. Serving as lector and Eucharistic minister and attending Adoration at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta brought her great joy and true peace.

Those who read her work or heard her speak publicly recognized that they were encountering a brilliant mind, one whose long training, stretching back to her parents’ secular household, manifested itself in her erudition, logical rigor, and elegant prose. But those with ears to hear and eyes to see experienced more than a brilliant mind. They witnessed a radiant, gracious, and grateful soul, one that knew that however much we must fight for and defend the truth, we know that our kingdom is not of this world. I will continue to learn from Betsey, as I have since that first meeting back in 1983. I will continue to learn from her books, her articles, and the memory of her talks and our conversations. But, in the most important sense, I will continue to learn from the way she lived her faith: with humility and with the quiet but unshakable courage that comes from recognizing that only through Him, through His Word and His Church, can we find the strength to withstand and transcend our sufferings here on earth.

In Betsey’s last years, Sheila, as a loving friend and godmother, and Gene, as her devoted husband, heroically tried to get Betsey to slow down. But Betsey could not. Although she may have looked like Martha, busily attending to “her many tasks,” she actually lived as Mary. For she was not, like Martha, “worried and distracted by many things.” Betsey knew, even in the midst of her busy, demanding, and physically painful life, that “there is need of only one thing.” She, like Mary, chose “the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

[1] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

[2] The University of South Carolina Press will publish a multivolume edition of Betsey’s selected writings. The volumes are scheduled to appear 2011.

[3] Betsey wrote two similar but distinct accounts of her conversion to Catholicism. See “Caught in the Web of Grace,” Crisis, (November 1997), online version accessed at: http://www.wf-f.org.07-1-ElizabethFoxGenovese.html, and “A Conversion Story,” First Things 102 (April 2000), 39-43, accessed online at: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/catholic_stories/cs0036.html

[4] Gene has written a moving memoir of his love affair with Betsey. See Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009).

[5] Betsey candidly discusses her ambivalence about finishing her dissertation in the Afterword to Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 248.

[6] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Origins of Physiocracy: Economic Revolution and Social Order in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976).

[7] For a sampling of their joint work, see “Slavery, Economic Development, and the Law: The Dilemma of the Southern Political Economists, 1800-1860” Washington and Lee Law Review 41 No. 1 (Winter, 1984), 1-29; “The Divine Sanction of Social Order: Religious Foundations of the Southern Slaveholders’ World View,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55 (1987), 211-233; and “The Religious Ideals of Southern Slave Society,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 70 (Spring, 1986), 1-16.

[8] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

[9] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Feminism and the Unraveling of the Social Bond,” Voices, Vol. XIX, No. 3 (2004), online edition, accessed at http://www.wf-f.org/04-3-Feminism.html

[10] Fox-Genovese, Feminism Without Illusions.

[11] Ibid., 81-84.

[12] Fox-Genovese, “Caught in the Web of Grace,” online version, 5.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ibid., 6.

[15] To date, two volumes of Gene and Betsey’s study of southern slaveholders have appeared: The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

A Short Bibliography of Selected Works by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

History and Literary Criticism:

*The Origins of Physiocracy: Economic Revolution and Social Order in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976).

“Property and Patriarchy in Bourgeois Political Theory,” Radical History Review 4 (Spring/Summer 1977), 36-59.

“Yves St. Laurent’s Peasant Revolution,” Marxist Perspectives 1, no. 2 (Summer 1978), 58-92.

The Personal is Not Political Enough,” Marxist Perspectives 2, no, 4 (Winter 1979/1980), 94-113.

“Scarlett O’Hara: The Southern Lady as New Woman,” American Quarterly 33, no. 3 (Fall 1981), 391-411.

*“Placing Women’s History in History,” New Left Review 133 (May-June 1982), 5-29.

*”To Write My Self: The Autobiographies of Afro-American Women.” in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, edited by Shari Berstock (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

*Within Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

*“Between Individualism and Fragmentation: American Culture and the New Literary Studies of Race and Gender,” American Quarterly 42, no. 1 (March 1990), 7-34.

*“The Fettered Mind: Time, Place, and the Literary Imagination of the Old South,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, no. 4 (Winter 1990), 622-650.

“Religion in the Lives of Slaveholding Women of the Antebellum South,” in That Gentle Strength: Historical Perspectives on Women in Christianity, ed. Lynda L. Coon, Katherine J. Haldane, & Elisabeth W. Sommer (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 207-229.

“Socialist-Feminist American Women’s History: A Review Essay,” Journal of Women’s History 1, no. 3 (Winter 1990), 181-210.

*To Be Worthy of God’s Favor: Southern Women’s Defense and Critique of Slavery (Gettysburg College, 1993).

With Eugene D. Genovese:

*Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

“Slavery, Economic Development, and the Law: The Dilemma of the Southern Political Economists, 1800-1860” Washington and Lee Law Review 41 No. 1 (Winter, 1984), 1-29.

“The Religious Ideals of Southern Slave Society,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 70 (Spring, 1986), 1-16.

*“The Divine Sanction of Social Order: Religious Foundations of the Southern Slaveholders’ World View,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55 (1987), 211-233.

*“The Cultural History of Southern Slave Society: Reflections on the Work of Lewis P. Simpson,” in American Letters and the Historical Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Lewis P. Simpson, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Daniel Mark Fogel (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 15-41.

“M. E. Bradford’s Historical Vision,” in A Defender of Southern Conservatism: M. E. Bradford and His Achievements, edited by Clyde S. Wilson (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 78-91.

*The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

*Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Women and Contemporary Society:

*“Women, Affirmative Action, and the Myth of Individualism,” George Washington Law Review 54, no. 2/3 (January/March 1986), 338-374.

“The Claims of a Common Culture: Gender, Race, Class, and the Canon,” Salmagundi 72 (Fall 1986), 31-43.

*Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

“Feminism and the Rhetoric of Individual Rights, I & II,” Common Knowledge 1, nos. 1 & 2 (1992).

*Feminism is Not the Story of My Life: How Today’s Feminist Elite has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women (New York: Nan Talese/Doubleday, 1996).

*Women and the Future of the Family, with responses from Stanley J. Grenz, Mardi Keyes, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, edited by James W. Skillen and Michelle N. Voll (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000).

“Faith, Fashion, and the Vocation of the Laity in a Secular, Postmodern World,” Voices, online edition, Vol. XVIII, no. 2 (Pentecost 2003), http://www.wf-f.org/03-2-Laity.html.

*“Equality, Difference, and the Practical Problems of a New Feminism,” Women In Christ: Toward a New Feminism, edited by Michele M. Schumacher (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

“Feminism and the Unraveling of the Social Bond,” Voices, online edition, Vol. XIX, no. 3 (Michealmas 2004), http://www.wf-f.org/04-3-Feminism.html

*Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008).


*“A Conversion Story,” First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life 102 (April 2000), 39-43.

*“Caught in the Web of Grace,” Crisis: Politics, Culture, & the Church, (November 1997), 42-50.